Taking a leaf out of Texas book for university entry

OPINION: Despite access programmes introduced by some third-level institutions, in Ireland the key factor excluding potential…

OPINION:Despite access programmes introduced by some third-level institutions, in Ireland the key factor excluding potential students is social class, writes ROSS HIGGINS

TRINITY COLLEGE Dublin deserves praise for its access programme to encourage more students from disadvantaged backgrounds to enter higher education. But, sadly, this programme and others like it have failed lamentably in their core objective of opening up college entry.

Positive and commendable as they are, these programmes are struggling against the tide. None of these schemes based on mentoring, supports or guidance has in any substantial way reduced the middle-class domination of university intakes.

But Ireland is hardly unique in this failure, with universities in most western countries dominated by the wealthiest and most privileged students. As in Ireland, there is still a huge gap between the social classes in the take-up of university places. And policy makers seem to want only to tinker around the edges of the problem rather than contemplate fundamental reform.

The debate around class and education in Ireland has historically focused mainly on the stale argument about whether private fee-paying schools should be in receipt of State funding. Altering this, however, will not dramatically alter the social class or geographic make-up of our university population. But changing admissions policies might do so.

In tackling this, the Government could do far worse than look to the state of Texas in the US. In 1996, four white applicants failed to get places in the University of Texas law school because of its affirmative action policies. They took the university to court and won. From this point, affirmative action was outlawed in Texas.

In response the Texas state legislature passed House Bill 588 or the “10% Rule” in 1997. This law required that the top 10 per cent of graduates from every high school be offered automatic admission to a Texas state-funded university. The scheme has its limitations – while it guarantees admission to a university, there is no certainty about getting on to a particular degree course and students still have to make their own financial arrangements on fees and subsistence.

In Texas, the rule was introduced primarily to tackle racial discrimination in university admission policy.

In Ireland the key factor excluding potential students is social class. Applying this policy in Ireland would open up the prospect of higher-level and university education to whole swathes of children outside the preserves of the middle class who so monopolise undergraduate intakes.

It would also provide for a huge increase in the geographic diversity of our universities, challenging the innate south Dublin bias in top admissions. In doing so, it would undermine one of the most pernicious factors in social immobility, which can be summed up in two words: rural poverty.

Such a change would also benefit the entire second-level education system. The current school system is, to all intents, segregated, with middle-class children siphoned off from local schools to attend schools in different catchment areas with better results.

Imagine if parents realised that their child finishing in the top 10 per cent in schools like Clongowes, Blackrock or Alexandra wasn’t a sure bet, and that their children might miss out on automatic university entry as a result of going to a school where a lot of pupils get very good results.

Might those parents not figure that their children would have a better chance of getting into the top 10 per cent in a different school? Might they not start seeing the advantages of sending them to schools with historically poor grades rather than the schools with the best results?

If this started to happen, we would then see a real mixing of social classes both inside and outside of the classroom.

The real difference this plan might make however, is that it would foster aspiration. Pupils would know that regardless of which school they attended, they would get to university if they came in the top 10 per cent in their year. The 10 per cent rule could introduce a culture of attending higher education in schools and areas in which it had never existed previously.

The idea is beginning to gain currency on this side of the Atlantic with David Miliband, as part of his Labour Party leadership bid in the UK, citing it as one policy approach to widening access to higher education. In a major speech on education earlier this summer, he said there was a need to address the issue of entry to university in Britain.

“In the US aptitude tests are used as part of university admissions so students’ future potential as well as their current achievement is measured. In Texas all students in the top 10 per cent of relative performance in their school gain automatic admittance to the Texas university of their choice. These are ideas we should be exploring not to reduce the quality of entrants but to raise them,” Miliband said.

I am lucky to have gone to university and I am currently a postgraduate in Trinity College. The stark reality is that there are kids who grow up in the inner city, a mere 100 metres from Trinity, who don’t even dream of walking through the gates as students.

Under a system similar to the Texas “10% rule”, they could dream – and more to the point they could succeed.

Ross Higgins is a PhD candidate in the school of histories and humanities, Trinity College Dublin and lectures in the Centre for Gender Studies